Empowerment through Knowledge: Frederick Douglass’ Journey to Freedom
Frederick Douglass: A Voice Against Hegemony
Frederick Douglass was an influential man and an abolitionist in the nineteenth century. He told his audience his story and the difficulty of being an enslaved man during the eighteen hundreds. In his book My Bondage and My Freedom, he explains to his audience what slavery was like firsthand by reliving the unforgettable moments in his life. His recounting of his experience as a slave and his reflections on his role as a black former slave in America help illustrate the meaning of Gramsci’s critique of hegemony and DuBois ideology of double consciousness.
Unveiling Hegemony through Douglass’ Experiences’
Hegemony is the political or economic predominance or control of one state over others. In the nineteenth century, hegemony came to describe the social or cultural predominance of one group over other groups. Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony was that the ruling class could manipulate the value system and mores of society so that their views become the views of the world. In other words, hegemony is the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group. In order for hegemony to function, consent must be given; however, if hegemony fails, coercion is in play. Slavery plays by the rules of hegemony, and for Douglass, in My Bondage and My Freedom, both outcomes of hegemony, consent, and coercion take place.
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Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland as Frederick Bailey approximately in 1818. Douglass served as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Baltimore throughout his youth. In Baltimore, especially, Douglass enjoyed relatively more freedom than slaves usually did in the South. At the age of eight, he started to educate himself with the help of his master’s wife, Mrs. Auld. Mrs. Auld’s instructions come to a conclusion as soon as Hugh Auld finds his wife teaching Douglass the alphabet. “Master Hugh was amazed at the simplicity of his spouse, and, probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery and the peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses in the management of their human chattels” (Douglass, p. 113).
Mr. Auld forbids her instructions and tells her, “that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead to mischief” (Douglass, p. 113) Mr. Auld continues speaking and soon unveils the secret to freedom, “he should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it.’ ‘if you teach that nigger—speaking of myself—how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him;’ ‘it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.”
Douglass’s narrative at this point shows how slaveholders maintained slavery. By keeping their enslaved men and women ignorant, white slaveholders did not have to worry about their rebellion. Around the time Douglass began writing, people believed slavery was completely normal and thought nothing wrong with it. They believed that blacks did not have the capability to participate in society and thus should be kept under the control of the whites. Slaveholders did not keep track of any slave’s basic information about themselves, such as their birth certificates or parental documentation.
This enforced ignorance robs children of their natural sense of individual identity. As slave children grow older, slave owners prevent them from learning how to read and write, as literacy would give them a sense of self-sufficiency and capability. Slaveholders understood the importance of literacy and how it would lead slaves to question their rights and the rights of whites to keep slaves. However, by keeping slaves illiterate, slaveholders could quiet slaves and keep the rest of America in the dark. If slaves could never learn to write, their life experiences as a slave would never be known.
Empowerment through Knowledge: Frederick Douglass’ Journey to Freedom
Just as slaveholders enslave both men and women by denying them the possession of both knowledge and education, slaves become free once they obtain knowledge and education. Douglass learns the importance of knowledge and how it can be the path to freedom from Hugh Auld and his wife after Mr. Auld forbids his wife from teaching Douglass to read and write. Without Auld noticing, he confesses to Douglass indirectly the secret as to how slaveholders manage to keep slavery in order and how slaves can free themselves. Douglass understands that his education is the primary means by which he can become a freedman and use his education as a tool to bring freedom to all slaves.
Abolitionist Advocate: Frederick Douglass’ Transformation and Activism
In 1838, Douglass fled to the North and towards the state of New York where he soon became a member of the antislavery movement or the abolitionist movement. While in New York, Douglass encounters Anna Muray, a free black woman from Baltimore, and marries her. Both felt uneasy about Douglass being a fugitive and settled further to the North in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass. For three years, Douglass worked as a laborer and continued his self-education. In the early 1840s, the abolitionist movement was gaining power. In Massachusetts, Douglass began to read the Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper written by William Lloyd Garrison. In 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he met Garrison and was encouraged to tell the crowd about his experiences as a slave. Douglass’s spoken account was so well‑received that Garrison offered to employ him as an abolitionist speaker for the American Antislavery Society.
Between the years of 1841 and 1845, Douglass traveled with Garrison throughout the Northern freed states, speaking basically every single day on the cruelty and corruption of slavery. Douglass was oftentimes charged with lying and not telling a true story. Many did not believe that such an articulate and insightful person had escaped from slavery. “They said I did not talk like a slave, look like a slave, nor act like a slave, and that they believed I had never been south of Mason and Dixon’s line” (Douglass, p. 282). Douglass’s use of real names and places demonstrated the truth to those who questioned the honesty of his experience as a former slave. However, the use of real names forced Douglass to flee from the United States as his former slave owner was legally entitled to track him down and bring him back to his duties. Douglass spent the next few years traveling Europe, where he was kindly accepted. Douglass was not able to return to the United States until two of his English friends purchased his freedom.
As a young man, Douglass had no idea that knowledge was the key to rendering slaves free. Slaveholders kept them away from knowledge because they understood it was the only way slaves could articulate the injustice of slavery to all of America and help prove that they had rights as men. Freedom was not provided immediately, as Hugh Auld had predicted; suffering was the result of this awakened consciousness. Every slave would be bound to feel hate towards their masters but would not be able to become free until they met coercion.
Slaveholders’ Corruption and Its Societal Impact
Slavery was not only harmful to slaves themselves but to slaveholders as well. The idea of white hegemony was a corrupt and irresponsible power that slaveholders enjoyed and could only harm their own moral health. With this claim, Douglass is inhumane and unnatural for everyone involved. Throughout his book, he recounts how many slaveholders were tempted to adultery and rape, becoming fathers to their enslaved children. The child born to a slave mother shall be enslaved no matter the condition of the father. Slaveholders simply used pregnancy to multiply their workforce.
Slaveholders simply wanted to expand their productive labor minus the idea of having to compensate via paid wages. Thomas Auld, on the other hand, slaveholders used their religious sense to blind themselves from the sins they committed. Douglass’s main illustration of the corruption of slave owners is Sophia Auld. The irresponsible power of slaveholding transforms Sophia from an idealistic woman to a demon. “Slavery can change a saint into a sinner and an angel into a demon” (Douglass, p. 111). By showing the detrimental effects of slaveholding on Sophia Auld, Douglass implies that slavery should be outlawed for the greater good of all society.
DuBois ideology of double consciousness, or the perception one has of oneself and the perception one has of others, plays a huge role in the development and understanding of My Bondage and My Freedom. According to DuBois,
the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.
In this quoted passage, there are two types of “double consciousness”: the first, which arises from the sense of “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others,” seems astonished appropriate when used as a matrix for understanding Douglass’s career from 1847 onward; however, it is the second formulation, which describes the African-American as “two souls… warring ideals in one dark body,” goes to describe how the idea of slavery was formed. To describe this more, before African Americans were turned to slavery, slave owners had to erase their culture and their identity and reconstruct them to suit slavery. This new identity depended on the culture of an American or white man.
In conclusion, Gramsci’s critique of hegemony and DuBois ideology of double consciousness is portrayed through Douglass’s experience as a slave and his reflections on his role as a black former slave. Hugh Auld reinforces the idea that the ignorance of slaves and their lack of education is the only form in which slavery is still intact. If a slave were to become educated and learn to both read and write, the secrets of slavery and the mistreatment of slave owners would turn the rest of America against them. The Declaration of Independence would have no meaning and make America a hypocrite. However, Douglass, in secrecy, learns to read and write by being self-educated and runs away to the North. He gained his freedom with the help of English friends and became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Douglass’s double consciousness and his experience as an enslaved man and a freedman helped him change America.
- Douglass, Frederick. “My Bondage and My Freedom.”
- DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.”